A cruel and bizarre experiment

Here’s a cruel and bizarre experiment: find a child you only tangentially know.

Maybe she is the friend of your daughter who spends the night sometimes but whom you’ve never really talked to. Or maybe she is your teenage son’s girlfriend whom you have met once and exchanged no more than “Hello” with.

There is no point in finding anything out about her. She is just a kid. Maybe you pick up one or two bits of information about her from your own child. Regardless, form some harsh judgments about her. Whatever. It’s the ’80s. This is how we roll.

Here comes the mad scientist part of the experiment.

Speak those harsh judgments to her. Embarrass her. Make it clear to her that she is not up to snuff. Whatever your crappy version of “up to snuff” is.

Now wait 25 or 30 years.

What do you think happens? State your hypothesis. Do you think she even remembers you? Or do you think she often thinks about your comments?

Do you think she’s on top of the world? Or do you think she’s pretty damaged and has some really shitty self esteem?

If you wagered that she spent 6 years in therapy, you, sir, go home with the jackpot.

The truth is, I’ve had some tough moments during meditation lately. I’ve stepped away from therapy but I am deeply focused on my daily meditation and mindfulness practices. Stuff still comes up. Like most stuff, it’s stuff that has come up before but I’ve always waved it away.

This time, I’d like to take the Buddha’s approach. I’m having the proverbial tea with Mara.

I’m saying, “Hey there, Mr. S and Mr. R. I see you. Come on in. Let’s sit together.”

Let’s start with you, Mr. S. I was your daughter’s best friend. And you told me I was the laziest kid you’d ever met. Why did you say that? I’ll never be sure. All I can figure out is that it was because you made your daughter mow the grass while you kicked back in the La-Z-Boy and drank beer. And I didn’t do any yard work at my house.

You probably didn’t know that my parent’s yard was easily four times the size of your yard and featured a 60+ degree angle on the hill out front. My father always felt that the safety of the lawn mower (both the equipment and the person wielding it) required someone with stronger arms to manage mowing that hill.

I also suffered from extreme environmental allergies. By the time I was physically big enough to wrangle a lawn mower, I think my parents were simply worn out from emergency room visits for asthma attacks and hives. No point in making me do something that was going to make me sick. So my dad did the yard work. I was relegated to laundry, dishes and other less anaphylaxis-inducing chores.

But the thing is, it doesn’t matter why I didn’t do yard work. Labeling me lazy and then TELLING me about it was pretty fucking rude. I always thought you were an uneducated redneck but I never told you. I think I had pretty good manners for a “lazy kid.”

Speaking of manners. Hey there Mr. R! I barely recognize you because I think I literally saw you in person one time. For about 12 seconds.

Your son and I had a brief high school romance our freshman year and kept in touch even after the family moved away. He is a fun, sweet guy and was my very first boyfriend. I was smitten.

We didn’t have smartphones way back then so our primary non-school communication came from talking on the landline after dinner and homework. I was so shy, but so, SO infatuated with him. I worked up the nerve to call him one night instead of waiting for him to call me.

You answered the phone and told me he wasn’t home. “Will you tell him to call me when he gets back?” I asked. You cleared your throat and said, in your stern, snooty bank manager tone, “I will not… TELL… him anything. I will… ASK… him to call you when he gets home.”

I think I squeaked out a “yes, sir” before hanging up and dying of embarrassment. I can still feel the hot agony of that shame spiral like it was yesterday. Good job, man. I was suitably admonished. Put me right back in the place where I belonged.

I’m guessing you thought I was trashy. My family was blue-collar. You were a professional and lived in a really nice house. My use of a casual phrase like “tell him” to mean “ask him,” “let him know,” and “make him aware” was certainly unacceptable. I mean I practically dropped the F-word in there. At 14, I really should have had a much better handle on making requests in a business professional manner, shouldn’t I?

You only had sons so you must not have known what a fragile, sensitive 14-year-old girl sounded like. I was timid and frequently told to speak up and to slow down because I talked much too quietly and much too fast. I was terrified of everyone and everything. Other people’s parents were the worst. It took a lot of gumption to call a boy.

I agree, it’s not great etiquette to ask a 40-something-year-old man to “tell” his son anything. But I was also a frightened, soft-spoken Southern girl. I’m 97% sure that was just as apparent as my faux pas.

You clearly didn’t know that, despite my seemingly low station in life, I had been drilled on manners since I was old enough to form complete sentences. “M’am” and “sir” and “please” and “thank you” were not negotiable at my house. The real faux pas is lecturing a virtual stranger — someone else’s child — on syntax.

So many years in therapy have taught me that we are all guilty of hurting other people. We push buttons, we make mean comments. We don’t even realize what we are doing. Despite my cynicism and sarcasm — and even in light of the fact that, at 42, I still think about these two incidents — I harbor no ill will.

My parents were pretty screwed up. The meltdown of their marriage, and other family history, did a real number on me. But I can confidently say they never mistreated me. They were never mean or cruel to my friends.

For this I am eternally grateful.

My parents instilled a sense of empathy in me. Sure, you may judge someone, but you don’t verbalize it. You don’t tell them what you’re thinking. You do your best to preserve their dignity. And you behave kindly.

The bottom line in this piece — which I know sounds like a selfish, navel-gazing rant-fest — is that kindness always wins. It may not be remembered. You may never be thanked for it. But you probably won’t be coming up as an emotional trigger in someone else’s therapy sessions.

As a “lazy kid with no manners,” I know better than to assert that I’ve never hurt anyone. I’m sure I have. But there are untold times I know I have had an opportunity to cut someone down, or to unleash my judgement, and I haven’t taken it. I’m very proud of that. If I sound self-righteous, that’s a label I can live with.

Can you say the same?